At last count, I pay for three different Internet plans. There’s my home line—a 20 Mbps (i.e., pretty fast) broadband plan I get from AT&T for about $60 per month. I’ve also got a coveted $30-per-month unlimited data plan for my iPhone. (AT&T discontinued that offer several years ago, but it let current customers keep the plan, so I’ve been hanging on to it dearly). Finally, I’ve got broadband access on my iPad, too. That’s through Verizon, and it doesn’t require a contract—I pay $20 for 1GB of data, and I get “tethering,” too, which means that I can share my iPad’s connection with other devices (like my laptop).
If keeping all these plans seems bizarre to you, it does to me, too. Why would anyone need a data plan on his phone and tablet? Why can’t the two devices share the same plan, or why can’t my phone share its access with all my other devices? My reason is peculiar—AT&T won’t let me add tethering to my iPhone’s unlimited plan; it wants me to “upgrade” my $30 unlimited plan to a $50 5GB plan in order to get tethering. That would mean more money for less data, which is why I pay for separate access on my iPad.
Still, odd as my data needs may seem, I suspect a lot of people are in a similar boat. People who don’t travel much or regularly work outside of their home or office may need wireless access on a tablet or laptop only rarely. It’s only about once a month or so that I’ll find myself in a place without Wi-Fi and need some way to connect my computer. Over the years I’ve looked into a lot of ways to fulfill this need—to give me Internet on the go sometimes, without a contract, and for not much money. And I’ve always come up empty. Mobile data plans without a contract are pretty expensive, and they’ve all got various unfriendly restrictions—like the fact that you pay for data that “expires” at the end of the month even if you don’t use it.
Recently, I discovered a much better way to get occasional Internet access for my laptop and tablet while I’m on the go. It’s a mobile hotspot service created by a startup called Karma, and while it’s not perfect, it’s one of the friendliest, cheapest ways I’ve found for mobile Internet users to get online.
Karma is two things: First, it’s a hotspot, a tiny device that connects to 4G networks and then shares the Internet connection to any device that can use Wi-Fi—your laptop, tablet, e-reader, etc. The device, which is about the size of a large wristwatch, sells for $79. To use it, you’ll also need to purchase broadband access—and that’s where Karma really shines. There’s no contract; instead, you can buy as much or as little data as you need. Karma charges $14 for 1GB of broadband, which is enough for a few days of heavy Web surfing (or several hours if you’re watching videos or streaming music). Karma’s plan has two major advantages over pay-as-you-go data services offered by large carriers. First, Karma’s coverage doesn’t expire every month. For instance, my Verizon iPad’s 1GB plan resets every month—if I only use half of my gig, I lose the rest on the first of the month. Karma’s plan never resets. You can pay $14 and use your gigabyte over as long a time as you like—you can use 500 MB in June, nothing in July and August, and then 500 MB in September, and you’ll still have spent only $14 for access.
“We wanted to make it very simple,” Robert Gaal, Karma’s CEO, told me. “We hated the concept of paying for something and having it expire—of paying for something that you’re not using.”
Karma’s other advantage is the way it encourages sharing your hotspot. Every Karma hotspot is “open”—that is, if you turn it on in an airport or coffee shop, other people can connect to it and begin surfing the Web. But get this: When they connect, they don’t use “your” data. Instead, when a new Karma user joins your hotspot for the first time, you and that user each get 100MB of free data access. The more people that you bring to Karma, the more free data you get.
What’s more, when you buy data from Karma, it’s tied not to your hotspot but rather to your Karma account. This means that you can use your data anywhere you find a Karma device—if you’re in a coffee shop where someone else has a Karma hotspot, you can hop on and use some of the 1GB of data you’ve purchased previously. Indeed, you don’t even need to buy a hotspot to use Karma. If your buddy has a Karma and you always travel together, you can buy data access to use on his (or anyone else’s) hotspot.
Karma is thus much cheaper than hotspots offered by large carriers. Verizon’s hotspot, for instance, sells for $99, and then costs $60 per month for 3GB of data. AT&T charges $30 per month for 3GB of data. T-Mobile charges $25 for 1.5GB of data per month. (These prices are all prepaid, i.e., they don’t require a contract, which is what you’d need for occasional use like mine. You may be able to get lower prices if you sign a contract, but you shouldn’t do that if you’ll need your service only every once in a while.) And because Karma’s data never expires, it’s cheaper than prepaid services offered by many smaller carriers, too.
I used Karma in two places—around my home in Northern California and on a short trip I took to Southern California last month. Both are big, populated places, and I got decent speeds there, usually between 3 and 6 Mbps. (I also found the hotspot’s battery life to be pretty good; it’s rated to last six to eight hours, which was good enough for me.) But one big downside to Karma is that it doesn’t work everywhere. The service uses the broadband infrastructure built by Clearwire, whose service is available across the country but mainly around large cities. If you plan on traveling to many less densely populated areas, Karma might not be right for you.
Karma is also not the absolute cheapest way to get occasional broadband on the go. That distinction, as far as I can tell, goes to FreedomPop, a startup that offers you a 4G hotspot for $40 and then gives you 500MB of data access for free every month. Yes, it’s totally free. The only trouble is, if you need more than 500MB of data, FreedomPop’s cheapest plan is $17.99 for 2GB—which, per GB, is technically cheaper than Karma, except that FreedomPop’s data also expires every month. So if you’re planning to use more than 500 MB but less than 2GB each month, Karma may be the better option for you. (I have not tested FreedomPop’s service, but it has gotten good reviews.)
Whichever of these you choose, you’ll be better off than going with one of the big guys. With Karma or FreedomPop, you’ll have Internet access in most places, for a small upfront cost and a reasonable rate for data. If you’re a sometimes mobile Web surfer, you ought to give one of them a shot.